Looking Back to Find the Future


he first American effort to evangelize unreached people groups came 200 years ago in February 1812. The commemoration of the North American missions bicentennial is being celebrated in Salem and Boston, Massachusetts, in February 2012. The theme, “Commemorating the Past—Envisioning the Future,” will provide missions leaders with an opportunity for an introspective reflection upon U.S. and Canadian missions history and a visionary projection into our missions future with the launching of a new North American missions network.

The first missionaries sent from the United States were commissioned from Tabernacle Church in Salem, Massachusetts, on February 6, 1812. The team members were Adoniram and Ann “Nancy” Judson, Samuel and Harriet Newell, Samuel and Rosanna Nott, Gordon Hall, and Luther Rice. Within days, the missionaries set sail for India, where they were to join the legendary British missionary pioneer William Carey. The Judsons would eventually move to Burma (now known as Myanmar), where they introduced the good news of the gospel to unreached tribal groups.

    Prayer and God’s Word

Judson had recently graduated from Andover Theological Seminary, where he distinguished himself as a bright, globally aware, and disciplined student. One of his seminary friends, Samuel Mills, is remembered for his own college days at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he and other students regularly gathered on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons for Bible study and prayer along the banks of the Hoosac River. On one of those afternoons in August 1806, Mills and his friends were caught in a thunderstorm and took refuge under the eaves of a haystack. Their prayer focus for that day was for the awakening of foreign missionary interest among students.

While waiting out the storm under the haystack, they prayed and considered their own missions obligation. What became known as the “Haystack Prayer Meeting” was one of the notable beginning points in American student activism in world missions. With the determined resolution “We can do this if we will,” the young visionaries turned their prayer meeting that afternoon toward a vision for the creation of a missions-sending structure. The North American missions movement had begun with students committed to Bible study and prayer.

    Public Discourse on Missions

At seminary, Judson and Mills were active in organizing a “Society of Inquiry”— a student prayer-study group on world missions. In June 1810, the group presented a petition to the annual meeting of the General Association of Congregational Churches, requesting the formation of a foreign mission society. Within two years, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was organized as the first missions agency in the United States.

In recalling the amazing work of the Holy Spirit in recruiting university and seminary students, David M. Howard states, “Within four years of the Haystack Prayer Meeting, these students had been influential in the formation of the first North American missionary society, and a year and a half later, the first volunteers were on their way to Asia.”

    Perseverance for Life

The missionary service of the Judson team and their young colleagues could be characterized by perseverance. Judson had that perseverance, and was remembered for stating, “The motto of every missionary, whether preacher, printer, or schoolmaster, ought to be ‘Devoted for life.’”

This devotion to Christ kept Judson through false accusation, persecution, and imprisonment. He was charged with being an English spy and was imprisoned in June 1824. For almost two years of incarceration during the Anglo-Burmese war, he suffered from fever and malnutrition and underwent a forced march. Judson’s steadfast obedience and sufferings were remembered by Samuel Zwemer, renowned missionary to the Muslim world.

When Judson was lying loaded with chains in a Burmese dungeon, a fellow prisoner asked with a sneer about the prospect for the conversion of the heathen.

Judson calmly answered,

“The prospects are as bright as the promises of God.”

Missionary statesman Donald A. McGavran, whose writings (along with Ralph D. Winter) gave rise to much of the current focus on unreached people groups, paid tribute to the sacrifice and fruitful labor of the Judsons. In 1955, he recalled how they had won converts from among the Karen tribe, one of the most backward and animistic unreached people groups of Burma. “Today,” McGavran stated, “there is a mighty Christian movement among the Karens and their related tribes in Burma, numbering hundreds and thousands of souls.”

The 2010 edition of the Operation World information and global prayer manual indicates a deeply rooted Christian movement in Myanmar. Amid the great suffering and repression of the last decade, the church of Jesus Christ is estimated to have more than 4.5 million believers. In addition, the interdenominational missionary vision among the Karen and other national churches has resulted in many intercultural missionaries to additional unreached and tribal groups within the country.

    Prospects for the Future

Until recently, two associations of missions agencies and denominations have operated in the United States and Canada: CrossGlobal Link (formerly IFMA) and The Mission Exchange (formerly EFMA). Church of God World Missions is a founding member of the former EFMA. In October 2010, the executive leadership and member agencies of both associations voted to merge, thus uniting into one association that will represent 35,000 North American evangelical missionaries globally.

The official launch of the new association and the announcement of the newly branded network name comes in February 2012 during the North American missions bicentennial celebration.

As we move forward in our own 21st-century efforts toward reaching unreached and unengaged people groups, may our missionaries and our missionary recruiting be characterized with the same elements that marked the Judsons and their colleagues—prayer for the nations, pursuit of God’s Word, public discourse (among the churches, the agencies/denominational missions departments, laity in the marketplace, and the emerging generation in our training systems), and a “devoted for life” perseverance in reaching the lost. Our prospects in reaching unreached and unengaged people groups with the gospel are “as bright as the promises of God.”